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Gay marriage: Britain, France in surprise contrast

FILE - This is a Wednesday Dec. 21, 2005 file photo of pop star Elton John, right, and his longtime partner David Furnish, embrace as they wave to members of the media and the public after they had a civil ceremony at the Guildhall  in the town of Windsor, England  John and Furnish were the most prominent of hundreds of same-sex couples planning to form civil partnerships in England and Wales on Wednesday, the first day that such ceremonies become possible. With little fanfare or controversy, Britain announced Wednesday July 17, 2013 that Queen Elizabeth II _ hardly a social radical _ had signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriages in England and Wales. France has also legalized gay marriages, but only after a series of gigantic protests attracting families from the traditional heartland that revealed a deeply split society. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

FILE - This is a Wednesday Dec. 21, 2005 file photo of pop star Elton John, right, and his longtime partner David Furnish, embrace as they wave to members of the media and the public after they had a civil ceremony at the Guildhall in the town of Windsor, England John and Furnish were the most prominent of hundreds of same-sex couples planning to form civil partnerships in England and Wales on Wednesday, the first day that such ceremonies become possible. With little fanfare or controversy, Britain announced Wednesday July 17, 2013 that Queen Elizabeth II _ hardly a social radical _ had signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriages in England and Wales. France has also legalized gay marriages, but only after a series of gigantic protests attracting families from the traditional heartland that revealed a deeply split society. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The French like to make fun of the British, joking about their repressed ways in matters of the heart. But when it came time to debate same-sex marriage, it was France that betrayed a deep conservative streak in sometimes violent protests – while the British showed themselves to be modern and tolerant.

With little fanfare or controversy, Britain announced yesterday that Queen Elizabeth II – hardly a social radical – had signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriages in England and Wales. France has also legalized gay marriages, but only after a series of gigantic protests attracting families from the traditional heartland that revealed a deeply split society.

Official word that the queen had approved the bill drew cheers in the usually sedate House of Commons.

“This is a historic moment that will resonate in many people’s lives,” Equalities Minister Maria Miller said in a statement. “I am proud that we have made it happen and I look forward to the first same sex wedding by next summer.”

There were British political figures and religious leaders vehemently opposed to gay marriage but the opposition never reached a fever pitch, in part because the same-sex marriage bill had broad public support and the backing of the leaders of the three major political parties. In fact, it was Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the tradition-minded Conservatives, who proposed the legislation in the first place.

“The opposition seemed restricted to a very small number of people very vigorous in their views,” said Steven Fielding, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham. “It was restricted to the back-benchers of the Conservative Party. It wasn’t shared across the political spectrum. It was an issue whose time had come. To oppose it seemed slightly strange.”

The law was also written in a way that allowed the Church of England – which is opposed – to sidestep the controversy since it is explicitly barred from conducting same-sex marriages.

The picture was completely different in France. Few people had expected legalizing gay marriage to face much of a hurdle. French polls had shown for more than a decade that the concept enjoyed majority public support, and Paris has had a gay mayor for years. And to outsiders, of course, France is seen as the land of “anything goes” when it comes to sex.

Then, something clicked in the conservative heartland – which showed just how much of a force it is in French life.

When the law was drafted and the idea of gays marrying turned from concept to imminent reality, traditionalists spoke up, and loudly. Protests grew bigger, and spread wider.

Once the law passed, the momentum stalled. Even the protesters seemed to realize they remain the minority, and polls continue to show that most French people think gay marriage – now that it is a fact of life – is fine.

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